HE may be irascible, uncompromising and reviled by most of the right-wing Press and Conservative politicians. But long standing parliamentarian Dennis Skinner remains much loved by the hard left, most of his constituents and many others besides who admire his refusal to kowtow to anyone.
It showed last week at the Curzon Soho in London when the Labour MP for Bolsover – the beast of Bolsover – turned up to talk briefly about a documentary made about him, Nature of the Beast.
He was clapped both onto and off the stage – with most people in the sold-out theatre standing up to acknowledge the great man’s presence. He was in buoyant mood, having just seen the Government defeated in the House of Commons over a vote on Brexit.
‘Tories are the nasty party all over again,’ he beamed. Then: ‘Mike Ashley, he’s a nasty piece of work. I look for Newcastle United’s results every Saturday and I hope they’ve lost.’
There was more. He backed new Labour leader in Scotland Richard Leonard to win back seats from the Scottish National Party. ‘Just remember, they are not here forever,’ pointing out that 10 SNP MPs areclinging onto seats with majorities of less than 1,000.
He also predicted that Labour was ‘on the way’ under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, describing Theresa May as that ‘boring woman’ and members of the Democratic Unionist Party as ‘Ronaldos’ – for the financial commitments they had received to keep May et al in power.
Predictable Skinner knock about stuff – which the audience loved and lapped up in quart sized pots– but what Nature of the Beast had tellingly revealed before the 85-year-old came on stage is the ‘other Skinner.’
A man who loves the royal parks of London, has a great affection for music, an almost photographic memory and can still belt out a hearty tune, turning heads in the process. Cut away the political rhetoric and here is a quite remarkable person who was successful at almost anything he turned his attention to – be it marathon running or singing (he had a falsetto voice until his early 20’s).
Nature of the Beast is a labour of love put together by film director Daniel Draper and producer Christie Allanson. Both in the sense that it took three years to put together and that the documentary is hagiographic in style. Of course, there is plenty of content from the House of Commons as speaker after speaker (from Bernard Weatherill to John Bercow) demands that Skinner withdraw comments he has made – or be barred from the house. For example in 2005 when he said of the 1980s and the Tories in Government: ‘The only thing that was growing then were the lines of coke in front of boy George [George Osborne] and the rest of the Tories’.
We also hear him shouting advice at Black Rod before the Queen’s Speech in 1992: ‘tell her to pay her taxes’.
But there is little in the documentary that is vaguely critical of this flag bearer for socialism.
We hear from constituents – even Tories vote for him, we are told – and there is an extended interview with four of his brothers (two of whom, as councillors, were bankrupted as a result of standing up to the Heath Government’s attempt in the early 1970’s to impose rent increases on council tenants). Like Dennis, all the Skinner siblings are steeped in politics, something they inherited from their father – a coal miner who was sacked in the 1926 General Strike, reinstated in the late 1930s as war beckoned and then unceremoniously sacked again in the 1950s for standing up to management.
We learn about Dennis’ tough upbringing, scrumping for apples, going out to pick mushrooms in the Derbyshire countryside and his rise through the ranks of the National Union of Miners to then become MP for Bolsover in 1970.
There is also footage of his mother, Lucy, who performed miracles in bringing up a family of nine – and whom Dennis sang to when she was in a care home and suffering from dementia (she reciprocated).
But this soft touch does not detract from the tenderness and watchability of this documentary put together by Draper and Allanson. Far from it. It allows the viewer to get a more rounded picture of an individual who is much more than his firebrand persona on Labour’s backbenches.
It displays his love of flowers – a particular favourite is a magnolia in London’s Hyde Park with ‘its beautiful pink flowers’ – and the Derbyshire countryside where he wanders among the bluebells and daffodils. It also confirms that he still has a pretty good singing voice as he belts out ‘Getting to Know You’ from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. He also mentions his love of Woody Allen, picking up hazelnuts and chestnuts, and his ability to speak extemporaneously.
I also smiled at the moment when he is seen signing a copy of the Morning Star for an admirer.
In the end you cannot help admiring him – an individual who refuses to participate in the parliamentary pairing system (because he says he is in Parliament to work, not skive), refers to Parliament as the ‘House of Varieties’, has never been on an all-party trip and does not believe in patronage. And who in 1985 managed to stop MP Enoch Powell – through filibustering – from demanding an end to stem research. A moment he is mighty proud of. As the excellent Ian Hadyn Smith, editor of Curzon Magazine and compere for the evening, said: ‘he is one of the great consciences of the House’.
As for Draper and Allanson, they appeared after the screening to talk about the film’s making – a documentary sparked by Draper interviewing the Labour MP about Robert Tressell’s political book ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
’Dennis gave me five minutes,’ said Draper. ‘He talked about picking up chestnuts that morning . I had a bad hangover and asked if I could make a documentary about him. He agreed to give it a whirl. Three years later, here we are.’
In 1990, Skinner told Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs that he would not hang around in the House of Commons when he was in his 70s – he also told her the song he’d keep above his top eight selections would be Peggy Seeger’s ‘What Did You Do in the Strike?’ (heard in Nature of the Beast). Well he is in his mid-80’s and still working harder than most other MPs. He just goes on and on (read that any way you wish).
The last word has to go to Skinner. Just before he headed back to the House of Common, he said: ‘When I go to places, I have to say to myself: ‘Dennis, it’s an adventure.’
So, when you feel miserable, just remember it’s an adventure. Life is an adventure. You only pass this way once. Make the best of it.’
Fine words. Peel away the political rhetoric and Nature of the Beast is as splendid piece of work – done on a shoestring – which I implore you to watch. Irrespective of your political allegiances. We don’t make ‘em like Dennis Skinner any more.
Director: Daniel Draper
Producer: Christie Allanson